Kejriwal and the ‘Dirty Hands Problem’

Guest Post by SURAJ JACOB

[Note: This article was written before the ongoing violence in Delhi began and is not about current affairs. It rather engages with the political problem at a broader philosophical level. – AN]

Analysts of Delhi’s recent election note thatAAP imaginatively courted voters on the BJP’s own turf (Shekhar Gupta): welfarism with a dash of nationalism and careful projection around religion. There are several critics of this strategy. Satish Deshpande criticises AAP’s quiescence in ‘mere’ development activities (its campaign “was about municipal matters such as water and electricity and nothing else”). He describes AAP as a “non-ideological management consultancy”, even arguing that its campaign conveyed the message: “Don’t worry, we have no problem with communal politics, but please don’t ask us to say it openly”. Apoorvanand also casts the AAP as “an ideology-agnostic party that does not impede the BJP’s nationalist drive”. Similar points are made by Yogendra Yadav. They castigate AAP for its ideological failure in resisting the BJP’s polarising tactics violating the spirit of the Constitution. AAP voted with the BJP on Article 370, welcomed the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya temple and did not sufficiently support protests around the CAA/NRC especially in Shaheen Bagh. Besides ideological failure, Yadav also identifies AAP’s moral failures: choosing consultants and candidates based on winnability “without any moral or ideological hindrance” and undemocratically centralising power.

Deshpande, Apoorvanand and Yadav are scholars and public intellectuals with activist conscience and commitment to the public good. Taking their disquiet seriously, one may ask: How, indeed, should AAP’s campaign have been? Is the party and its dominant leader Kejriwal really “non-ideological” and “ideology-agnostic”, especially when it comes to toxic polarisation? The evidence simply doesn’t stack up for such a sweeping claim (though, according to Suhas Palshikar, “we will probably never know” Kejriwal’s real stand on these issues). Notes Monobina Gupta: “the AAP, within and outside parliament, has opposed the CAA and supported the protests in Shaheen Bagh in different ways. … What his [Kejriwal’s] ideologically-inflected critics mean to say is that he didn’t take the position they wanted him to. Yes, he didn’t run an ideological campaign.”

If the AAP leadership indeed shares the humanist values of the Constitution and broadly also the ideologies of Deshpande, Apoorvanand and Yadav, then the latter’s critiques are likely actually about AAP’s compromises, which they find illegitimate. This important issue has wide repercussions: How specific contexts and situations shape (and should shape) the translation of abstract ideology into practical political action. What legitimizes or de-legitimizes such translation?

Naturally, philosophers offer insights on the ethics of action when compromises loom, when “moral dilemmas” are involved. In a moral dilemma, one has to choose between options, consciously or by default, and alloptions lead to morally deleterious consequences. In the political context this is called the problem of “dirty hands”. Michael Walzer’sclassic 1973 essay on this is useful to understand AAP and Kejriwal.On the one hand, anon-ideological campaign failed to speak truth to (polarising) power. On the other hand, an ideological campaign may have increased the chances of BJP forming state government and bolstering its polarising strategy. Arguably, this can be construed as a dirty hands problem: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Or in the medieval Kannada of Basavanna (translated by A. K. Ramanujan), “a grindstone hung at the foot / a deadwood log at the neck / the one will not let me float / and the other will not let me sink”.

Assuming that one frames a situation as a dirty hands problem, there are two interesting perspectives. One perspective argues for systematic resolution and the other argues that there cannot be – ought not to be – a systematic resolution of moral dilemmas. In the former, there are no ‘genuine’ moral dilemmas since apparent moral conflicts can actually be systematically resolved. Resolution would involve a mechanism of comparing the horns of a dilemma and applying some calculus of moral trade-offs. The Bible and Koran relate a very dramatic instance of the resolution of a potential moral dilemma by Abraham when he shows unquestioning obedience to God’s command that he sacrifice his child.

In Kejriwal’s case, what would systematic resolution look like?The critics put greater ‘weight’ on speaking truth to power even at the cost of losing the election and Kejriwal puts greater weight on development and winnability (or even winnability through development). Yadav notes that the BJP campaign was one of “full-throttled communal polarization … had this model succeeded, this would have become a national template”. This suggests considerable weight on winnability. Arguably, an AAP campaign of full-throttled ideological rebuttal may have increased the BJP’s winnability and the move to national template. (Palshikar notes that it is not clear how an ideological campaign by AAP would have affected votes.) In which case, there is a strong case for the “pragmatic self-preserving electoralism” of which Deshpande is dismissive. Separately, Kejriwal’s critics chide that by not running an ideological campaign, the BJP was successfully allowed to redraw the terms of political discourse. The counterfactual question is: had the AAP run an ideological campaign and the BJP won, wouldn’t it have succeeded even more in redrawing the terms of discourse?

Either way, in this approach, depending on moral or ideological weights, the dirty hands problem collapses to show ‘the’ legitimate political path. One could press the critics and Kejriwal to explain why they hold the moral or ideological weights they do. (Or one could at least press the critics on this; in Kejriwal’s case the choice of political path may involve hiding the calculus of moral trade-offs since revealing may itself reduce winnability.)

Putting all this together, and despite the critics, Kejriwal may well quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet to justify his path: “I must be cruel, only to be kind: / Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind”.

Western Traditions

Another approach to dirty hands avoids resolution through the calculus of moral or ideological trade-offs. Walzer writes of a politician who has engaged in an act of violence “convinced that he must do so for the sake of the people”:

“Now he is a guilty man. His willingness to acknowledge and bear (and perhaps to repent and do penance for) his guilt is evidence, and it is the only evidence he can offer us, both that he is not too good for politics and that he is good enough. Here is the moral politician: it is by his dirty hands that we know him. If he were a moral man and nothing else, his hands would not be dirty; if he were a politician and nothing else, he would pretend that they were clean.”

 Similarly, in Jean Paul Sartre’s 1948 play Dirty Hands, a character says:

“How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid are you to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? …You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. … Well, I have dirty hands.Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently?”

Here, the idea is that ‘doing politics’ implies having dirty hands. Kejriwal’s critics do not seem to acknowledge this, hewing instead to an almost purist, absolutist position that AAP should have spoken truth to power. Engaging with these critics, Aditya Nigam sees value in AAP’s politics of development and governance and suggests that unlike the critics, AAP has to navigate everyday political realities that necessarily involve compromises:

“… most of the members of my secular community cannot convince ten right wing Hindus and bring them over to their point of view … They are therefore most comfortable taking a radical stand on everything on earth within their own comfort zones… [AAP’s tactics come] from the need to win over ordinary Hindus qua citizens to its politics… It all comes down to a strange moral discourse about how everyone is compromised and compromising.”

“Where then does the self-confidence of our secular ideology-warriors about the correctness of their own position come from? I suspect it comes from the marginality that they have become so used to living in… They can be ‘correct’ one hundred percent in all ways because the stances they take affect no one… we have the luxury of being more radical-than-thou or more secular-than-thou because someone else is dirtying their hands to provide you with that space – in this case, a non-BJP government that has in fact made a paradigm shift in Indian politics.”

Gali Nagaraja recently compared the different paths of Andhra’s Jaya Prakash Narayana (JP) and Kejriwal. Both gave up prestigious government jobs to start NGOs and grassroots movements around good governance and converted them into political parties. Both got support from middle class and urban educated populations. The difference is that JP was more comfortable in advocacy and as an activist,but reluctant “to emerge as a mass leader by converting his advocacy into political action” – while Kejriwal “painstakingly built AAP into a cadre-based, committed political organisation” which played with the populism that JP shunned. In short, JP did not enter politics in the substantial sense of inevitably dirtying his hands.

Back to Walzer on dirty hands. Going beyond the calculus of moral trade-offs, Walzer describes two Western traditions. One is represented by Max Weber. The dirty-handed politician does what s/he does with a heavy heart and pays some private price for necessary-but-immoral acts in the pursuit of the good. Walzer notes that “Weber attempts to resolve the problem of dirty hands entirely within the confines of the individual conscience” and this is insufficient since “sometimes the hero’s suffering needs to be socially expressed (for like punishment, it confirms and reinforces our sense that certain acts are wrong)”. The other tradition is represented by Albert Camus’ The Just Assassins where the heroes engage in public self-punishment: “The heroes are innocent criminals, just assassins, because, having killed, they are prepared to die – and will die. Only their execution, by the same despotic authorities they are attacking, will complete the action in which they are engaged…” (Walzer).

These Western traditions imply that being a moral politician means acknowledging dirty hands and paying the price, possibly in public. Do our politicians sleep easily or are they troubled by the vulgarities and (structural) violence which comprises and compromises their everyday lives? For Kejriwal, the Walzer question is whether he feels the need to ‘atone’ for not emphasizing Shaheen Bagh and CAA during the campaign, and if so, how he intends to atone.

But the problem does not start or end with politicians. In some way or other, everyone has a public role or is in a position to make decisions for some collective, whether big or small, including those who critique Kejriwal’s campaign. And such decisions often involve dirty hands situations. So the critique should turn inward just as it turns outward to the likes of Kejriwal – and yet it seldom does, especially in public. There is something missing (and convenient?) in critiques that only project outward. And naturally this writer is included, mea culpa.

‘Dirty Hands’ and Gandhi

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” moments were common for Gandhi, that very public figure who took ‘Truth’ seriously and saw politics as an extension of it. Gandhi would not frame moral dilemmas as choice between moral options, but there are lessons in how he would frame and navigate. Unlike in Walzer’s Western traditions, for Gandhi it was not about guilt and atonement around necessary-but-immoral action – rather, it was about humility and Truth-seeking from a situation of human imperfection.

Why did Gandhi dirty his hands by entering politics? He did not separate identity as householder, political being, spiritual being, and so forth. Thus he could not escape dirty hands by not entering politics. He would not accept Walzer’s dichotomy between the moral non-politician whose hands are clean and the moral politician who dirties his hands.

Gandhi accepts the limitations of our particular circumstances, which makes ‘perfection’ unattainable. One’s hands are dirty simply because of the human condition. With the realization of (the essentiality of) human imperfection comes an acknowledgement of the possibility of doubt and error – spiritual, moral, ideological,intellectual. This makes for a deep humility and helplessness. But Gandhi also believed in the need to pursue ‘perfection’, Truth. Since one’s values can rarely be readily applied to human situations, one has to ‘experiment’ with Truth in every situation, engaging in intense spiritual introspection. This keeps the Truth-seeker forever on her moral toes, always engaged in the process of “heart-churning”– wrestling with the moral dilemma, bringing all her energies, reasoning, sensibilities, and spirituality to bear on the matter (see Margaret Chatterjeeand Raghavan lyer). It is from this heart-churning that the correct path of action evolves. To twist a famous quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, our capacity for Truth makes it possible to pursue its attainment, and our inclination for Untruth makes Heart-Churning necessary.

However, acceptance of imperfection, doubt and error does not lead Gandhi to a position of total relativism, for he believed in the possibility of rising above moral dilemmas, through heart-churning. Here he emphasized hope – hope that heart-churning will show a way out of the moral dilemma. He makes a clear distinction between helplessness, which derives from the human situation and human weaknesses, and hopelessness, which leads to forsaking the pursuit of a moral life. Even in inevitable helplessness, there must be hope. Upon starting a fast, Gandhi writes:

“A man with a grain of faith in God never loses hope, because he ever believes in the ultimate triumph of Truth… But my helplessness is a very patent fact before me. I may not ignore it. I must ever confess it… Handling large masses of men, dealing with them, speaking and acting for them is no joking for a man whose capacity God has so circumscribed. One has, therefore, to be ever on the watch. The reader may rest assured that I took the final step after I had realized to the full my utter helplessness. And I cried out to God. That cry must not be from the lip. It has to be from the deepest recesses of one’s heart. And, therefore, such a cry is only possible when one is in anguish. Mine has expressed itself in a fast, which is by no means adequate, for the issues involved. My heart continually says: Rock of Ages cleft for me, / Let me hide myself in Thee.”

For Gandhi, heart-churning is intertwined with self-suffering. He writes: “the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man.” But this is not suffering to atone for guilt from necessary-but-immoral action (Walzer’s Western traditions). Rather, it is suffering as Truth-seeking. We see in the self-suffering of the Truth-seeker Gandhi’s attitude to the moral dilemma: to go beyond the seemingly irreconcilable moral options in a moral dilemma, to touch the heart of the ‘other’ along the path of Truth opened by heart-churning. Notes Chatterjee:

“This apparent ‘conquest’ by the satyagrahis was, however, not a defeat for the other side, but a conquest for them too, in that they had been able to rise above the factors which had previously stood in the way of understanding… Self-suffering is more than a tool of conflict resolution, it is a way of ‘changing reality’.”

Importantly, self-suffering must occur in the path of Truth. Gandhi was aware of potential misuses –suffering as a tool for manipulation, moral blackmail.This further distinguishes it from Walzer’s Western traditions where, since the morality or immorality of an act is certain, the issue of suffering-as-manipulation (rather than suffering-as-atonement) does not arise. Writes Gandhi to a friend who he felt was undergoing self-suffering without appropriate heart-churning (even when he favoured the cause):

“I have heard that you have gone on hunger strike at not finding sufficient response from your neighbours to the call of non-co-operation. Whist your action shows the purity of your heart and the spirit of sacrifice, in my opinion, it is hasty and possibly thoughtless. Fasting for the purpose of showing one’s displeasure or disappointment can hardly be justified. Its basis must be penance or purification… We must not put pressure of the kind contemplated by your fast in order to bring people round to our point of view. We must give to everyone the same freedom of action and speech that we claim for ourselves.”

In sum, Gandhi offers an attractive alternative. Dirty hands problems and moral dilemmas are ubiquitous in our everyday lives and should be taken seriously by ‘Truth-seekers’. The translation of morality and ideology (even if these were coherent and well-elaborated) to thought and action is typically not given or easy. The calculus of moral trade-offs, making for a comfortable (even self-satisfied) resolution towards ‘doing the right thing’, is not attractive. Neither are Walzer’s Western traditions attractive – namely, recognition that necessary-but-immoral action, being immoral, should come with guilt and atonement through suffering. Rather, Gandhi’s call is for heart-churning, self-suffering, ‘experiments with Truth’ driven by humility from recognition of imperfection and helplessness as well as the capacity for hope.

Discussion of nuances around the dirty hands problem, or philosophies and practices to navigate morality, may appear far removed from today’s urgent tragedies of violence and violation of freedoms and rights. And yet they have a hidden practicality and relevance. They remind one about seriousness of purpose and the moral and ideological logics of political action. They help one take more nuanced stances and energize one to more nuanced action, on pressing practical matters such as AAP’s electoral campaign, acts of ‘good governance’, pluralism, meaningful democracy and the public good.

Suraj Jacob is affiliated with the Azim Premji University (Bangalore) and the Centre for Development Studies (Trivandrum).


2 thoughts on “Kejriwal and the ‘Dirty Hands Problem’”

  1. I wonder what the writer will have to say now, post riots in Delhi, about Kejariwal’s role when North East Delhi was burning. Can he still philosophy an ex-activists CM’s complete absence from the riot scenes when even for accessing medical aid HC’s intervention was required? I am really keen to know.


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